POETRY IN MOTION
Rabbi David Walk
It's embarrassing to admit how bad I am at writing poetry. I really love poetry. And there are word skills at which I'm moderately proficient like public speaking and writing these articles, however poetry isn't included. My poetry tends to the 'Roses are red, Violets are blue, I'm not a poet, And neither are you,' variety. I couldn't even write greeting cards. Real, artful poetry, on the other hand, moves me for two reasons. First, the word pictures, skillful poets can conjure amazing visions in our brains with their dexterity of vocabulary. We say one picture is worth a thousand words. Well, in great poetry, one poem is worth as many pictures as times it is read. And, secondly, poems have this magical quality of meaning many things simultaneously. The texture of outstanding poems can approach infinity. The bliss of reading the same poem at different stages of life is too delicious for this non-poet to put into words. But Biblical poetry has another conjuring act. It often sounds contemporary millennia after the authorship.
For me, the prime example of that last point is Psalm 122. In verse 3, King David avers that 'Jerusalem is built like a city which is joined fast together (ir she'chubra la yachdav).' This phrase initially described how the parts of the city and its arrangement upon the hillsides were aesthetically pleasing. Soon, though, with the building of the Holy Temple and the throngs that thronged (in the Second Temple about 400,000 equaled a throng) to it for the pilgrimage festivals, it was the city which bound the nation together in brotherhood and fellowship (refer to verse 8). To the rabbis and mystics this phrase informed us that Jerusalem constitutes the connection or interface between heaven and earth. When prayers or souls go to heaven they first encounter the celestial version of Jerusalem, Jerusalem 2.0. But then in June 1967 (Iyar 28) the meaning changed abruptly. The city whose heart was scarred with barbed wire and pill boxes became whole and healthy again. I can't read this poem without a tear reminding me of how our little country when from the brink of extinction to the heights of joy in six short days. Every time I read about a project to ease movement to and from the Old City, like the train or cable car, I feel that we are fulfilling King David's prescient words.
However, in this week's parsha, Bilaam tries to do King David one better. Bilaam tells us that he is describing a future scenario (Bamidbar 24:17). Bilaam begins by emphasizing that his prophecy concerns a distant time. What he sees in the distant future is that Moav will be defeated by the future kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of David. With these words Bilaam at the same time confirms and assuages Balak's fears: B'nei Yisrael are indeed great and powerful, and they are destined to crush Moav, but this will happen only a long time from now. For the meantime, then, Balak need not fear. In truth, it is specifically these verses, which look like an appendix, that are the crux of all the prophecies, since only these relate directly to the main subject of the parsha, presenting a solution to Balak's short term Jewish problem.
Bilaam uses two phrases ('not now...not soon') to describe this far away time. So, the Midrash informs us (I believe correctly) that Bilaam is informing us of two future periods, that of King David (about 1000 BCE) and of the great descendant of that dynasty, Mashiach (? CE).
But the true poetry of his pronouncement is the description of this great leader. He is called: DARACH KOCHAV M'YAAKOV (normally rendered: a star shall come forth from Ya'akov). The great imagery comes from the term DARACH. It's in the past tenses, because, even though it's describing a future event, to the observer it's as if it already happened. But what's the word picture being drawn. Rashi, based on the Targum, translates it 'arise'. The Da'at Mikra (from Mosad Rav Kook) explains that it's a military term and describes drawing back a bow to fire an arrow upon our enemies. But feel free to insert the futuristic weapon of your choice. Rav Ovadia Sforno avers that it means physical and eternal power. The Ramban believes that it describes paving a road for the exiled to return home. And, my favorite, Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra picturesquely conjures up the image of a new (or shooting) star coursing its way across the sky, a la ET. Pick your pic.
Bilaam's communique continues by describing the future conquests of this paragon of power and prowess. He will subdue Moav, Edom and Amalek, but, of course, we can substitute in whoever will be our enemies at the Messianic period. It's interesting to note that different poets and seers notice different events occurring with the advent of that era. Bilaam foresees military victories, others predict the ingathering of the exiles (And the great shofar will blow and those lost...and those cast away...will worship...in Jerusalem, Yishayahu 18:4), while a third group of prognosticators notice the end of war and eternal peace (Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and none shall learn war again, Micha 4:4). Only Moshe testified to the entirety of the vision; all others reported what struck their notice. The greatness of these witnesses was in the power of their speech, not necessarily the acuity of their sight.
Ah, poetry! Eli Khamarov, the writer and social commentator, said that poets are, 'soldiers who free words from the steadfast possession of definition.' And John F. Kennedy may have been talking about Bilaam while musing, 'When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.' Poetry unshackles our imagination to see and understand things we thought were beyond our ken. Parsing poetry is fun and liberating, but also prepares us for finding p'shat in places far beyond our world. Let's use these skills to immerse ourselves in the beauty of Torah; it's all poetry.